Heebie Jeebies

He stocked his store with earnest. So much so that it was more living room than store, sparsely but personally full of items he’d collected, found, or made. Many stores in New Orleans are like that. They’re owned by a single proprietor, occasionally a group of friends, who will take a lease on a closet in the Quarter to share something.

Not all of these places are obviously shops. Entryways can be pushed back from the street with stairs leading to a weathered door, wooden, with chipped slats that may or may not be open. Only sometimes, mostly with the establishments that have been in operation for more than a year, will there be a sign proclaiming “Gallery” or “Books” or some other earmark to understand the site’s purpose.

Wander down enough side streets after enough cups of booze and the distinction between home and store becomes fuzzy. I have vague recollections of once eating a po’ boy sandwich in what may have been someone’s kitchen. But this is, in itself, the wonder of the Quarter: You never know precisely where a door leads, but you will almost always be welcome.

This particular doorway stood close to the sidewalk, rising crookedly above two steep steps. Only curiosity drew me to it, that and a small handwritten note in the window announcing, “Vodou Reference + Tools.”

Decades of humidity had warped the door. There was no cracking it open to peer into the shop; this door required deliberate intent. My husband pulled against the suction of sagging wood. Resistance gave way to relief and we entered as the only customers.

Unlike many stores in the Quarter, this one was meticulously clean and full of light. Stark white shelves held random stacks of books, clearly short run presses from local writers I like to imagine the owner knew. A curtain, fastened with two small safety pins, cordoned off the back portion of the store in reservation for “private guests only.”

A cabinet positioned in a niche near the front had been fashioned into an altar. This is not an uncommon site in the Quarter. Shops,  galleries, even bars will have a small corner or table of reverence, each unique but possessing select, unwavering arrangements. Part of the joy in experiencing New Orleans is witnessing such gentle pride in religion, where, even if your beliefs are opposing, you’re invited to regard small signs of faith.

Faith is an odd asset. In this particular space, the owner’s faith shined from the glass of crystalline water deliberately placed on the alter, glowed in candles, and spoke from the few hand-crafted objects on display in a glass case.

Sometimes, however, it isn’t as obvious.

The high, vaulted ceiling was the best part of that apartment on Moorpark. After several years, it may have actually been the best part of Los Angeles. Wood beams slated at dramatic angles there, vaguely rustic, gristled and dark, absorbing sun and making the building feel more likea cabin than the two-story dingbat it really was.

A cactus sat on the stucco balcony. Five years had passed since I moved to LA and the cactus was one of two things I managed to not kill.

Winter in Los Angeles is made for unemployment. There ismore rain than sun, a relief that prevents you from wanting more beyond the walls of your home. That wet December the sky would hemorrhage and I’d cross off my days out of work – 310, 317, 329 – on a curling calendar and wonder whether there was something more for me beyond a ceiling that could make rain sound like dancing.

The cactus thrived. It had outgrown its pot and was too unwieldy for me to replant. Flowers randomly sprouted from its arms, unscented but obvious, oblivious to my violent need to press beyond my present.

By the time there was nothing left for me in that town, the cactus towered more than four-feet high. It was the last thing I looked at before closing that apartment door to move 2,000 miles in the opposite direction. Not the cathedral-style ceiling beams or the sliding mountains in the background. Just the cactus, left alone to the balcony.

He may have had Parkinson’s disease. His words shook as he greeted us, a book trembled in his lap. The reluctant sounds of the door opening and our arrival seemed to have roused him from deep concentration, and while his movements struggled, they belied an eagerness to share the contents of his store.

We wandered obligingly. A small knife caught my husband’s eye. Like everything in those self-possessed quarters, were it not for a pricetag, the piece had the look of a personal belonging. It was placed among a haphazard collection of carvings and leather cords in a glass display case that rattled as the owner’s knee jerked against it.

He wanted to know if we’d like to see the knife. His knotted hands faltered in agitation at holding a small key to open the case and we hesitated in asking him to go further, but his pride overrode our concerns.

Each movement ached in forced choreography. We silently watched as he worked through his intentions to retrieve the knife and took it from him gently when he held it out to us in his two hands.

What started as a simple household steak knife had been  transformed by an overlay of bone carved elegantly, with ardency. Tiny figureswere painted on handle and a thin leather cord wrapped the bolster.

He had made it, of course, before his body turned to rebellion. His hands may have betrayed his skill now, but his eyes were full of spark as he carefully explained to us each step he’d taken to preserve the jawbone of a wolf and why he chose to craft the ornate piece in front of us.

There were many reasons we purchased the knife. It later occurred to us that the only people who visited that store were likely the owner’s friends and family. Being so far off the usual paths and lacking the ribald trinkets found in many Quarter shops put this one at a distinct disadvantage. But that wasn’t really the purpose of the shop, and I can only hope that our genuine interest and admiration of this particular man’s faith did not go unnoticed.

My bookshelf at home is a shrine to the things I love. Predominately literature, but also objects of importance: A photo of my husband, a chunk of crystal fluoride from my father, postcards from friends in other countries … And that knife from a random, but significant, store in New Orleans.

They blossom from the shelves in rain, in snow, and especially in sunshine reminding me that no matter the day, or the weather, it’s the little things we collect and share, and may occasionally leave behind, that have the most meaning in our lives.

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